By Teddy Jones (Contributor)
Years ago an article in an electric co-op’s publication caught my interest. It told of a group of women who were known colloquially in Bell County, Texas, beginning in about 1868, as the Sanctified Sisters. Later, I drafted a novel in which the protagonist was a granddaughter of a fictional member of this group. In that novel the protagonist, in 1929, finds a journal written by her grandmother during the years 1880-1910. When I wrote the journal entries, I had experienced the feeling that I was taking dictation. The grandmother’s diction and the content came to me as clearly as if she were speaking. Only after having drafted the entire novel did it occur to me that I might have written an inauthentic voice.
In the years between my initial awareness of the Sisters and the development of the novel, I had read several books, including three academic studies in which the group was mentioned or was the prime focus. I recalled the researcher who wrote the academic work had mentioned an archival repository. That’s when my first experience with archives as a source for authentic historical character voice began.
But what does this elusive and often misunderstood term actually mean? In a publication of the Association of American Archivists, Laura Schmidt explains:
Archives exist both to preserve historic materials and…to make their collections available to people, but differ from libraries in both the types of materials they hold, and the way materials are accessed….Archives can hold both published and unpublished materials, and those materials can be in any format.
Some libraries may also hold archives, as may some museums. Other archives are separate institutions housing numerous collections on a variety of topics.
The writer seeking authentic voices through archival research can gain maximum benefit by careful preparation prior to visiting the site. Preparation should include: identifying questions to guide the search, locating archives that may contain relevant material, gaining access to the archives, and planning for a visit to the archives if onsite work is needed. Each of those latter three steps is discussed in some detail in Schmidt’s work.
Too much information can daunt even the hardiest of writers. To narrow the focus of her search, a writer should identify questions which, answered, would offer guidance to creating the character’s voice. My questions were: In letters or diaries, do people in this place and time write formal, complete sentences? Is vocabulary common or elevated? Are spelling errors common? Is grammar correct? Is colloquial language frequent? One further question may prove beneficial. That is, “what types of materials from the time and place which might contain answers to those questions?” After this preliminary phase, the writer is better prepared for the next steps.
Main sources for locating relevant archives, mentioned in Schmidt’s work, include several websites that offer links to archives and descriptions of their holdings. A good reference librarian can aid in locating archives, also.
After potentially relevant archival collections have been identified, the next level of important information resides in “finding guides” that describe the extent and type of materials in the specific archives’ holdings. The guides include the number of boxes of materials, the types of materials, and any restrictions on use. If materials have been digitized and/or can be photocopied, they may be available remotely. If not, they may be only available onsite. Further, the writer can directly query reference personnel at the archive to gain details about the specific holdings of interest. The archive’s website may also contain information about research services provided by archive personnel. These preparatory steps help the writer decide whether to plan an onsite visit.
If an onsite visit seems important, archives’ websites can guide the writer. Important items to know ahead of the visit include location, hours of operation, rules about use of personal cameras and recording equipment, how to notify personnel of an upcoming visit, whether materials may have to be brought from storage to provide access, and other operating procedures. Whether a trip to an archive proves fruitful can hinge on the writer’s awareness of this information.
Using the materials, whether accessed onsite or remotely, is probably best accomplished through immersion, followed by analysis. View, read, listen, sift, then sit back and ponder before focusing on the questions formulated at the outset. Since authentic voice is the treasure, “eavesdrop” broadly among your archival sources related to the time and place before making choices about the character’s voice.
Fortunately, the researcher who studied the Sanctified Sisters extensively, Dr. Sally Kitch, cited the location of the archive mentioned in her work: The Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. The Center’s website includes a finding guide to the Woman’s Commonwealth Archive detailing accession information, an abstract of the contents, the extent (4 ft. 10 in., the linear shelf space) and the language in which the materials are written. Also included are an historical note from the Handbook of Texas Online, a paragraph describing the scope and contents, restrictions, and the preferred citation.
Two items on the finding guide prompted me to contact Briscoe archive personnel for further information about restrictions and digital access. I learned that one specified box of materials requires Dr. Kitch’s approval for use in publication, and that no material in the Commonwealth archive was digitized. With that, I had taken another step—identified potentially relevant archives.
Because of staffing constraints, The Briscoe Center is unable to provide proxy research services. Their website lists independent proxy researchers who are available to perform research activities at the Center for a fee. I knew the questions about the material that would help me confirm the authenticity of the character’s voice. But without additional information about the specific content of the archive, I wouldn’t know the extent to which I could find the answers. The Briscoe Center is more than four hundred miles from my home. Employing a proxy researcher to survey the contents seemed prudent.
The researcher promptly reported which materials which were probably most and least useful to my quest. At that point, I made plans to visit the archive and also contracted with the researcher to assist me onsite—I wanted a guide in unfamiliar territory.
We spent two days in the Center. I found much of interest—subpoenas, newspapers from the late 1800s, photos, minutes of a meeting of a group of church elders withdrawing fellowship from a member, many letters, and other material. I could easily have spent several days peeking into the pieces these lives left behind.
Several hours into my second day at the Briscoe Center, I found the item that proved most useful—a handwritten journal of more than 75 pages, written by the founder of the Woman’s Commonwealth, Mrs. Martha McWhirter. It offered a clear example of the voice of a woman in the same place and time as my fictional character. Photocopies of the journal’s pages, combined with documents I had photographed and notes I made about other items in the archive, filled a four-inch wide ring binder.
After immersing myself in those documents, I had gained additional knowledge of the group of intrepid women who were the real Sanctified Sisters. And beyond that, the questions formulated at the outset of my search for authentic voice were answered. Mrs. McWhirter was a very bright woman who had little formal schooling. My character mentioned she was a reader and that she was concerned about her child’s receiving an education. Her words confirmed her care with language:
I, Corrine Johnson Good, take pen in hand to set down some of the story of the Good women of Williamson County, Texas. On this same date, four years ago, 1876, six women left Bell County and traveled to Austin for legal purposes. Each of us, on the following day, in six separate courtrooms, legally changed from our several surnames to the name Good.
I knew that a difference between the two voices would be the extent to which spelling and grammar would be correct—Mrs. McWhirter used incorrect verb forms frequently and some misspellings showed consistently. My character didn’t make those errors. Otherwise, sentence structure, rather formal, and tone of my character and the person in the archives were quite similar. Clearly, the grandmother’s voice—that dictation I received—fit time, place, and other character attributes. Archival research assured me of its authenticity and, in the process, taught me messages from the past, resting in archives, can benefit fiction.
Teddy Jones is author of Jackson’s Pond, Texas: A Novel; Halfwide: A Novel; Left Early, Arrived Late: Scenes from the Life of Marcia Muth, Memory Painter, a biography, and co-author of A Stone For Every Journey, a biographical novel, and 100 Doses: Capsules of Advice and Wisdom for the Health and Well-being of Farm and Ranch Women.